The climate crisis is probably the biggest long-term challenge that humanity faces. Doing nothing is not a viable option. We cannot go on with business as usual. Our lives and livelihoods will be affected in the coming years and decades – by how much is as yet unknown. Bold, decisive action and visionary leadership will be needed at national and global level. But those things alone will not suffice. Nor are technological breakthroughs likely to be the magic-wand solution some blithely hope for: science and technology will doubtless help but it will not solve the problem on its own. We are all going to have to play our part – by doing our bit, by changing and adapting how we live our everyday lives. For many of us that will mean doing more than merely paying lip service to the idea of sustainable living.
In our earlier blog Persuading people to live more sustainably is not going to be easy we highlighted some of the levers that government has at its disposal if it wants to effect changes in people’s behaviour. It is worth briefly considering what happened during the Covid pandemic – an extreme emergency by any standards, and one that quickly became the most disruptive event in the life of the country since the Second World War.
It certainly involved us changing and adapting how we lived, at least for a time. It also involved the government using emergency powers to compel us to behave in a certain way. At the time of writing, almost all Covid restrictions have now been removed in England, but only after two years of unprecedented (in peacetime) restrictions, including a lengthy period when most people were legally obliged to stay at home, only setting foot outside for certain very specific reasons.
Initially, these drastic measures were effective and compliance levels were high. The threat from Covid was obvious and widely understood, due not least to the footage of utter chaos in Italian hospitals shown daily on the news. This wasn’t something abstract and distant in time and place: it was real, immediate and on our doorstep. There was also widespread agreement across the political and scientific communities that immediate and drastic action was needed. And the government subsequently spent hundreds of billions of pounds to soften the blow.
Two years later and, largely as a result of vaccines, many people no longer see Covid as quite so threatening. There is a widespread sense that we need – as far as possible – to get back to business as usual, to how life was pre-Covid. Coupled with this is unease about the extent to which government has been ‘interfering’ (a loaded term, of course) in our lives and telling us what to do over the last two years.
In free societies it is axiomatic that the power of government should be limited. The pandemic was an emergency requiring extraordinary measures: worst-case scenarios indicated that hundreds of thousands of people might die. However, this was the ground – the proper role of government – where significant differences of outlook first started to show themselves: between those who wanted to restore full individual liberty as quickly as possible, leaving decisions on individual behaviour up to the individual, and those who took a more interventionist view, arguing that there was an important and significant role for the state in safeguarding public health and wellbeing. And the greater the role for government, the greater the financial cost, meaning increases in taxation and government borrowing.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that how we respond to climate change – an emergency, like Covid, though not one that requires an overnight (almost literally) and drastic response – is sure to be one of the main political battlegrounds of the coming years. The issue of how best to effect changes in people’s behaviour and questions of cost and the proper role of the state will underpin the discussion and debate.
Phrases like ‘green recovery’, ‘the costs of net zero’ and ‘green new deal’ are now common in political discourse, the latter a no-doubt deliberate echo of FDR’s transformative New Deal in the Thirties following the Great Depression. And a transformation is indeed what is required.
Sadly, like social care, another urgent issue of our times, political realities mean that much far-sighted and creative thinking is probably going to be stymied by petty partisanship and in-fighting, with ideas and proposals put forward by one side routinely rubbished by the other. Just think of the twin phrases ‘death tax’, used about Labour government proposals before 2010 to reform social care, and ‘dementia tax’, used about later Conservative government proposals.
Let’s hope not.
The future of transport illustrates some of the issues. Millions of us own cars. A headline-grabbing element of the government’s climate change strategy is to replace petrol- and diesel-powered cars with electric ones. A ban on sales of new diesel and petrol cars is due to come into effect by 2030. But in 2019 there were 2.3 million new cars registered in Britain and only 1.6% of them were battery-powered. So how will the government meet its 2030 objective?
It seems reasonable to expect that many car owners will only seriously consider switching when the cost of buying a battery-powered car comes down, when battery technology is further refined and when adequate infrastructure is in place, particularly the construction of a vast network of charging points. All of which will require investment from the government and the private sector – not to mention the support that is surely owed to people whose livelihoods depend on industries we are leaving behind. As the political wrangling over the introduction of the Greater Manchester Clean Air Zone has shown, people will need (and expect) financial assistance to help them make the kind of switches that living more sustainably requires.
The third and final blog in this series will look at a new grassroots campaign to encourage people to change their behaviour. It will also consider the importance of education so that children and young people are learning about the environmental challenges that confront us, and about actions that we can all take to help deal with them.
Image at the head of this article by Mikes-Photography from Pixabay.